Getting Better All The Time - Pt. 4
05/22/14 - 17:29 Filed in: Baking | Lessons Learned
This four part blog entry began when I realized I was having a string of successful cooks, despite some technical issues. I was lucky enough to be able to work my way out of the difficulties and later figure out the problem. This process forced me to go back to basics and think about what was working and what wasn’t. I figured it might help some other folks if I wrote down some of the things I had learned to do or be sure not to do to insure a successful cook. While the problems I began having first showed themselves when I was baking on the Egg, I saved this baking section for last. PART 1 covered general topics related to getting started and some things that will help you along the way. PART 2 covered items specific to grilling. PART 3 covered what I learned smoking on a horizontal offset barrel type smoker and more recently my Big Green Egg. Those segments had items of interest to folks using a Big Green Egg as well as other grills or smokers. This final segment covers baking on a Big Green Egg specifically. While anyone is welcome to read it, the people who it is aimed at are people who own, or are thinking of buying, a Big Green Egg and plan to bake on it. I am limiting this entry to the Big Green Egg because that is what I know. Before owning my Big Green Egg I only baked once on a grill.
FIND OUT MORE:
As I mentioned above, I have written one or more times in my blog on many of the topics below. At the bottom of these 4 blog entries, I will included links to these blogs, organized roughly in the order I have discussed them here. The reason I am doing it this way is some of these other blog entries touch on several of the topics referred to in this blog. Rather than have the same entry appear multiple time in the main body of this blog, it will appear once below. So if any of these topics interest you and you might be interested in reading more about them, scroll down to the links below.
Are You Serious?, You Bake on the Big Green Egg?: Totally serious and YES. The items in the Baking Section of this site are a mix of items baked in the oven before I got my Big Green Egg and once I got the Egg all baking has been done on it. The are links below to the relevant Picture Entries. More Info
What Can You Bake on the Egg?: Pretty much anything you can fit on it.
Why Would You Want to Bake on the Egg?: From a technical standpoint the Big Green Egg is like a little domed brick oven. The domed shape helps give it an even heat and I find I get more even baking on my Egg than I do in my oven. The Egg, with it’s tight seal, loses less moisture during the baking process than the oven in your Kitchen. From a practical standpoint it allows you to keep from heating up your indoor oven on a hot day. It also frees up your oven for making some other kind of dish on a busy holiday.
Additional Equipment Needed-Outdoor: It really doesn’t take too much extra equipment to get into baking. You will need a Platesetter which you may already use for indirect and low and slow cooking. You can also use the Adjustable Rig from the Ceramic Grill Store, which is a third party solution that gives you the ability to have up to 5 shelves in various configurations. The other thing you will need is a pizza stone that fits on the Egg. I bought Big Green Egg pizza stones made out of the same ceramic material as the Egg itself. I had a nice stone, but I decided I wanted a stone that I wasn’t as worried about the physical appearance of. I also use this stone to do pizzas at high temps and I don’t care if there is some burned on food or smoke stains on this stone.
Additional Equipment Needed-Indoor: You can reuse whatever baking dishes you already own. You are adding little to no smoke during your baking session, so your bakeware will look as good as new after you put it in your dishwasher.
Will I Taste Smoke in my Baked Goods? - Big Picture: I have only tasted smoke flavor in my baked goods once. It was very faint and did not detract at all from the flavor. If you think about it, historically most ovens were wood fired.
Will I Taste Smoke in my Baked Goods? - Specifics: It depends on several factors under your control. The first is the charcoal you use. Some charcoals give off more smoke flavor than others. The charcoal I use, Wicked Good Weekend Warrior, is smoke neutral. By that I mean it has very little smoke flavor of it’s own. I use smoking woods to add flavor to my BBQ cooks. Secondly is your startup process. You need to let the Egg warm up sufficiently to burn off of all the VOCs and get to the point where the charcoal is producing clean smoke. For baking this should not be a problem normally, because most pizza stones say to let them warm up for 30 minutes or so once the oven or grill has reached your baking temperature. After this additional warmup time for the stone, the charcoal should be burning clean. The third factor is the current state of your Egg. Did you do a long low and slow cook last where you used hickory wood chunks to add a heavy smoke flavor? This may be problematic if there are still wood chunks or chips in your charcoal bed. It would be wise to remove this charcoal and any wood chunks/chips within. You could save this charcoal to use for another cook where you don’t mind smoke flavor. I have two Eggs and I try to do all of my baking in one and all of my heavy smoking in the other. If I am doing multiple cooks on my baking Egg in a given day, I try to do the baking first.
Platesetter - Legs Up: If the recipe calls for you to use the Platesetter legs up, the remaining part of the setup is the stock BGE stainless steel grill grid on top. You may put a pizza stone on top of this depending on your recipe, but this is more typical of baking a pizza. Normally the item you are baking goes directly on the s/s grid in the baking dish or sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
Platesetter - Legs Down: If the recipe calls for the Platesetter to be installed legs down the item you are baking goes directly on the top plate of the platesetter in the baking dish or sheet pan lined with parchment paper. At least this is how the recipe may call for it. Conventional wisdom is you should use some shims to elevate the baking dish up off the ceramics of the Platesetter. The bottom of your baking dish will get too hot otherwise. I will discuss shims below, but the theory os to get a thin cushion of air between the top of the Platesetter and the bottom of your baking dish.
Shims: Big Green Eggs used to come with green colored ceramic feet which were intended to elevate the bottom of the Egg up off a table. Many folks didn’t need the feet because to the way they used their Eggs. These feet were used instead as shims to elevate a cooking/baking pan up off the platesetter. Some folks use wads of aluminum foil rolled into balls. This solution is the simplest, but you must make 4 equal sized balls so the food sits level. The solution I use, which was suggested on the Egghead Forum, was 1/2” copper plumbing T’s. BTW another use for the shims is when you are using the Platesetter legs up and are using a drip pan on top of the Platesetter. Shimming the drip pans helps keep the drip pan cooler so you don’t get nasty smoke from drippings being boiled off.
Which is Better Platesetter Legs Up or Legs Down?: Yes. Honestly you will find as many people who swear by legs up as do legs down. Me I don’t know, I have had good luck with both ways. Here is my approach: If the recipe is written for the specifically for the Big Green Egg, such as those in the Big Green Egg Cookbook or Big Green Egg Lifestyle Magazine, they will tell you what setup to use. If the recipe is written for the oven, I will try to find a similar recipe in the Big Green Egg Cookbook and use this setup for the similar recipe. lacking any specific guidance I tend to install the Platesetter legs up with the stainless steel grid. One of the reasons I like this setup is it makes it easy to install a grate temperature probe at the level I am baking at. Lately I have started using the Adjustable Rig for much of my baking, which I will discuss below.
The Adjustable Rig: The Adjustable Rig by the Ceramic Grill Store is a third party Eggcessory that gives you a very flexible solution offering up to 5 levels of shelves. There is an oval pizza stone which allows you to set up the AR for indirect cooking/baking. Using something called the Rig Extender you can get a shelf high up inside the dome. At that level you are using the heat radiating off the dome as the primary source for cooking your food. The shelves can be installed every 1 1/2” (3.8 cm) on center. Depending on the thickness of the dishes or trays you are using to bake with, you can get 1,2,3 or 4 levels of food with the oval stone installed on the lowest level. Some of the shelves on the AR can slide, which makes accessing your food easier. The biggest advantage to the AR is the ability to remove the entire AR with all of the shelves and food in one operation. If you have a lot of adjustments to do this allows you to do it outside of the Egg. You open this lid long enough to remove the AR and close it again. You make the adjustments to the food and then open the lid of the Egg, return the entire AR and close the lid. Much less heat loss doing it this way. More Info
Should I Use the Platesetter or the Adjustable Rig?: My use case is I have two Large Big Green Eggs and I am often using both at once. As a result my use case is driven by what I am cooking on each Egg. Many times it is a no brainer.
- For simple baking on the Egg where I am making something in a single pan or on a single tray, I use the Platesetter installed legs up. I use the stainless steel grid with a grate probe for my remote read thermometer installed out of the way (but over the ceramics of the Platesetter) on the s/s grid. This is a simple ideal solution.
- Now if I can’t fit the grate probe on the stainless steel grid due to the size of the item I am baking, I switch to the AR. I install the oval stone at Level 1.5, a sliding oval grid at Level 3 and a sliding oval grid at Level 4.5. The grate temperature probe is installed on the grid at Level 3. The clip for the probe elevates the probe so it is just under your cooking level at Level 4.5. The item I am baking goes on Level 4.5.
- If I am using 1/4 sheet pans, I have been able to do 2 trays worth on the AR. The setup was the oval stone at Level 3, a sliding oval grid at Level 4.5 and a sliding D-grid on top of the Rig Extender. These top two grids got the trays of cookies and the temperature probe was able to go just behind the 1/4 sheet pan at level 4.5.
- In theory I could get a total of 4 shelves on the AR. Three would be easily doable, because shelves at the 4.5, 6 and 7.5 levels all are located above the felt (gasket) line so the shelves and/or the sheet pans on them can be easily slid on and off.
- Adding a shelf at Level 3 would require removing the AR from the Egg. The cooks done using trays are generally cookies which have a relatively short cooking time. I am thinking it would be probably less of a hassle to just do two rounds of cookies than do a 4th shelf on Level 3. A shelf on Level 3 would require me to remove the AR from the Egg to swap positions of the food. For a long term cook this makes some sense, but a short cook no. More Info
Rotating or Swapping Food Positions: I always change the positions of my food midway through baking. This is something recipes written for the oven have you do too. It helps insure the foods are evenly baked.
- A single baked item I rotate 180 degrees at the midway point.
- Items on two shelves, I swap the vertical positions of the shelves and rotate them 180 degrees too. In my case the use of two shelves is done on the AR. But it could also be done using the Platesetter legs up, the stainless steel grill grid and one of the Big Green Egg Folding Grid Extenders. No matter which method you use, you will have different temperatures at different levels. Swapping the trays vertical positions evens out this temperature difference and rotating the trays 180 degrees takes care of evening out the cooking if you have hotspots on your Egg.
Lighting the Fire: I really don’t do anything different when I am lighting the fire for indirect baking, that I do for other indirect cooking.
When I light one or more spots on the grill for indirect cooking or baking I make sure that the areas I am lighting fall under the ceramic plate of the Platesetter or the ceramic oval pizza stone.
- If it is a relatively low temperature baking session, 325 (165 C) degrees or so, I will light one paraffin fire starter in the middle of the charcoal pile. If using the Looftlighter I mound some coals in the middle of the Egg and light a single location. Once I am sure the fire is going I add the Platesetter and grill grid or put the assemble AR on. I hook up the grate probe to the transmitter and get it synched with the receiver unit for my Maverick ET-732 or ET-733. I close the lid and the the Maverick’s receiver unit close by, so I can monitor the startup temperature rise.
- For higher temperature baking sessions around 400 or 425 degrees (205-218 C) I will light 3 paraffin starters in a triangular pattern. I make sure these locations will fall under the ceramics which are giving me the indirect heat. With the Looftlighter, instead of one larger fire in the middle, I light 3 smaller fires in a triangular pattern. I then add the Platesetter or AR etc, as described above.
Hitting the Temperature: There is nothing about Baking that requires different procedures than any other type of cooking. I generally monitor the temperatures from my Kitchen on my Maverick remote read thermometer. When I see my temps have risen to within 50 degrees (10 C) of my target temp, I go out and close the dampers to the final settings I generally use to hold that temperature. This will arrest the upward climb of the temperatures and sometimes they will even fall a bit. Typically I give them a few minutes and they will begin creeping up again, but more slowly than before. I watch them again and when they get to within 10 degrees of my target, I shut the dampers down slightly to get them to stop. I give them about 5 minutes to see if they are stable and then I start counting off the 30 minutes I want my pizza stone (if using) or Egg to be stable for, before adding any food.
Measure at the Grate Level, Do NOT Use the Dome Thermometer: For whatever silly reason, the conventional wisdom with the Big Green Egg is you can use the dome thermometer to measure temperatures in the grill. This winter was colder than the previous winter and beginning in November I started having issue with baked goods that I had successfully baked the winter before. It was almost 2 months before I figured out the reason for the problem. I actually avoided using my AR during some of this time because I did not want to introduce yet another variable into the equation. The solution was something I already knew, but had chosen to go with flow when I got my Egg. Everyone says use the dome thermometer, use the Force Luke. It turns out I had variations of 100 degrees or more between the grate level temperatures and the dome level temperatures. The winter before was warmer so the variation probably wasn’t as bad. But the extreme cold weather this year was making for big variations between dome and grate level temps. But this discovery quickly explained why the bottoms of my baked goods were coming out overcooked and the tops were undercooked. As soon as I chose to ignore the dome thermometer and put a grate level probe at my baking level, all was right with the world again. Now over an extended period of time, and if you keep the lid closed the dome thermometer and the lid thermometer do get close to each other. But the Egg must be going for a long, long time for this too happen. The solution is simple and is the same procedure used for an other cooking device. Measure the temps at toe level you plan to cook at. If I am using the s/s grid over the platesetter installed legs up, it is easy to get a thermometer at the grate level. With the AR, as mentioned above, I either squeeze a probe on the same level as the food or I install an extra shelf above the stone and below the cooking level grate. With the clip for the grate level probe elevating the probe an inch (2.5 cm) or so this puts it 1/2” (1.25 cm) below the level of the food, which is certainly close enough. More Info
Opening the Lid & Temperature Loss: The colder it is, the longer it takes to recover from opening the lid. In warm weather the temps bounce back pretty quickly. In colder weather and for quick cooks like cookies, I step in and try to get the temps back to where they want to be. I have found removing the top Dual Function Metal Cap completely helps get the temps turned around. When the temps get to within 20 degrees of my cooking temp I put the cap back on and the temps generally level off where I had stabilized the Egg.
Total Time: Most of the time, the cooking times given in the recipe is too short. But you will notice I said MOST of the time. So I always check 5 minutes before the done time given in the recipe for recipes with a baking time of 30 minutes or less. If the baking time is an hour or so, I will check 10 minutes earlier. This assumes your temps have been at the desired level. If they have been running higher, you may want to check even sooner. This check can be a quickie where you lean over and peek under the lid as you raise and lower it quickly. Based on what you see you can decided when to check again. If the recipe says the total cooking time is 15-20 minutes and you look at 12minutes or so and things aren’t close, you are probably safe waiting till the 20 minute mark to check again. This is something that is a bit instinctive and you should quickly get a sense of when to check.
Calzones: I am going to briefly mention calzones here too. I prefer to do my pizzas at a higher temperature of 600 or 700 degrees (315-370 C) and the setup for those is a bit different. But calzones are cooked at 350-375 (170-190 C) which is the same range as most baked goods. The additional item used for calzones is a pizza stone. I place the pizza stone on top of the stainless steel grill grid. The Big Green Egg pizza stone is 13” in diameter (33 cm) and fits 2 calzones of the size made by the Big Green Egg Family Sized Calzone Press. I put the calzones on pieces of parchment paper I trim down with some Kitchen shears so the paper is about an inch bigger than the calzone. I use the Big Green Egg Pizza Peel with the stainless steel paddle to get the calzones on and off of the pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza peel another method is to use an inverted 1/2 sheet pan. Flip the pan upside down and place the calzones on the parchment paper on the bottom of the sheet pan. This makes it pretty easy to slide the calzones on and off the pizza stone.
GEAR: If you already bake, you probably own most of what you need. If you are just getting started I will mention a few items that help make your life easier and your end results better. I am not going to do an exhaustive and thorough discussion of all things baking.
Metal Baking Pans: When I was looking in to buying some round, square, and rectangular metal pans I checked several sources. Cooks Illustrated does very thorough test of Kitchen ware and I was surprised to see the results were constant across the board. Their winners in all of the various shaped baking pans were all by Williams-Sonoma from their Gold Touch line of non-stick pans. These pans featured thick walls which help make for even baking. The gold finish helps with the color of the end product. Real light and real dark pans produced less than ideal color. The medium level gold color produced nice color. The non-stick finish was very non-stick and easy to clean. They are not dishwasher safe, but cleanup is a breeze. I have a bunch of these pans and I love the results I get using them.
Silicon Dough Rolling Mat: This easy to clean silicon mats allow you to form, knead and roll your dough. There are convenient marks for various sized round pieces of dough so you’ll know you’ve rolled out your dough to the right size. There are rulers in the margins to help you measure lengths. The silicon finish makes the mat easier to clean than your countertop. You can roll it up and bring it over to your sink for easy clean. I got my rectangular model from the King Arthur Flour online store. The Big Green Egg Company offers a smaller square model in their store.
Thermapen Instant Read Thermometer: I’ve already mentioned the Thermapen in other parts of this blog. It comes in handy for some types of baking recipes too. Bread loaves are often checked for doneness by measuring the internal temperature of the loaf. The narrower than normal tip makes it easy to insert the probe into real crusty loaves of bread. The 2 second read time minimizes the time your lid needs to be open. More Info
KitchenAid Stand Mixer: I hesitate in some ways to put this on the list because it isn’t an inexpensive item. But I have done baking 3 ways: hand kneading, portable mixer and stand mixer. While some people love kneading and I’ve heard it called soothing and therapeutic, I really don’t enjoy it in the least. Particularly when I know there is a better and easier way to do it. A portable mixer is easier and I got better results, but using one of these with the dough hooks is pushing a hand mixer to it’s limits. I was given my first stand mixer, a KitchenAid 4.5 quart model and I soon fell in love with it. The resulting dough came out better and my end product was better too. What I liked about the stand mixer is while it was kneading the dough, I could be starting in on my Kitchen cleanup. The other nice thing about KitchenAid is the wealth of add on attachments available for it. The attachments are usable on any KitchenAid mixer. When I got my new 5 quart model this year, all of my attachments work with it. One way to justify the stand mixer is some of the other things you can do with it. I bought a breakfast kit which bundled several accessories. There is a meat grinder which I use to grind my own beef for hamburgers. There is a sausage stuffer for making your own sausages. There is also a juicer for making your own orange juice, lemon aid , lime aid etc. But bottom line the stand mixer makes baking a breeze and a pleasure.
LEANING TO BAKE:
Baking Lessons: If you were like I was when I was first starting out and don’t have a clue about baking, I strongly suggest you get some help getting started. Baking sounds real scientific at first, what with weighing the ingredients vs using volume which can be less accurate. But after you get things mixed together, all this precision goes right out the window if the consistency of the dough is too wet or too dry. The problem is when you are first starting out, you have no idea what the dough should feel like. So I would suggest enlisting the help of a friend or family member who bakes. They can help you get the feel, literally, for what the dough should be like. Another alternative would be to take a class at a local Community College, or Culinary College, or if you have a local company that makes baking products they may offer classes. The last example for me is the King Arthur Flour Company which is headquartered in Vermont and has an excellent baking school that offers a wide variety of classes on every baking topic imaginable. I don’t like to spend your money, but having gone through the process myself Baking is not something you can learn from a book only. You need some hands on help. It took me a little time to get started, but now I just KNOW now when the dough feels right.
Baking Related Websites:These are my GO TO websites for baking questions or recipes. One is a paid site, but it is money well spent. More Info
Related Blog & Picture Entries: Here are some blog entries which take some of the items covered above and expand on them:
PICTURE ENTRIES - BAKING: ANGEL BISCUITS
BEST AMERICAN DINNER ROLLS
CHICAGO DEEP DISH PIZZA CRUST
FLOUR’S BAKERY BURGER BUNS
HAMBURGER ROLLS - BGE
IRISH SODA BREAD
MINDY’S PRETZEL BUNS
PIE CRUST - BGE
PIZZA DOUGH - BGE
SKILLET CORN BREAD
PICTURE ENTRIES - DESSERTS: BUTTERMILK PIE
CHEWY OATMEAL LOGS
EGGNOG BUNDT CAKE
HUNGARIAN CHRISTMAS COOKIES
MINI GINGERBREAD WHOOPIE PIES
PICTURE ENTRIES - PIZZA & CALZONES: MEATLOVERS CALZONE
QUICK BEEF CALZONES
SPINACH, ONION & CHEESE CALZONE
THE ADJUSTABLE RIG: THE ADJUSTABLE RIG - FIRST IMPRESSIONS (2014 Blog Entry)
IGNORE THE DOME THERMOMETER: GETTING BACK ON TRACK II (2014 Blog Entry) Ignoring the conventional Big Green Egg wisdom that you can use the dome thermometer to measure temps and going back to measuring temps at the grate level, all of my recent recent baking issues were solved.
THERMAPEN: THERMAPEN INSTANT READ THERMOMETER: (2014 Blog Entry) Essential piece of gear for not only outdoor, but indoor cooking too.
COOKING CLASSES: NIGHT SCHOOL: (2009 Blog Entry) Baking Class I took at the King Arthur Flour Company.
WEB BASED BAKING RESOURCES:
Cooks Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchens / Cooks Country: Great recipes that have been worked out to the last detail and then taste tested for goodness. Besides cooking related topics, they also cover baking techniques and test baking gear. This is a paid site, but I have had a membership going on 10 years now and it is worth every penny: www.cooksillustrated.com/
King Arthur Flour Website: There are hundreds of baking recipes here as well as information on all baking related topics. They also have a company store that sells their products and carries all sorts of baking tools. There is a brick and mortar store at their headquarters in Vermont and an online store. The products they carry are not the cheapest you will find. They are solid near commercial grade products that will last you a long time. As I mentioned above, they also have a great baking school. There is a schedule of the classes offered on their website. Lastly they have a phone or text chat based help line where they will help you work through problems you may have had run into making one of their recipes. http://www.kingarthurflour.com
OTHER ENTRIES IN THIS SERIES: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 1 (General)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 2 (Grilling)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 3 (Smoking)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 4 (Baking)
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